Celebrating the Diversity of Senior Lifestyles
By Alaina Stratton, Senior News Contributing Editor
We live in a time of unprecedented freedom to live the life of our choosing - a freedom that today’s seniors have embraced. Cultural expectations for our 50s and beyond have changed drastically over the last few decades, and we have today’s seniors to thank for that. Today’s older adults have often chosen to live differently, through small daily choices and big life choices. They live courageously, sometimes off the beaten path. They’ve lived lives in defiance of science and prognosis; they live lives different from what has been modeled for them. And that’s worth celebrating - yet many of us don’t often think to celebrate, and we’re missing out on the benefits it provides.
Incorporating celebration into our lives isn’t just about giving honor where its due, being self-indulgent, or offering false flattery. Living a life of celebration can have positive benefits, health and otherwise.
Celebration helps us to be grateful for what we have and who we are. Celebrating doesn’t have to look like a big party (though it can be that, too). Celebrating can be as simple as taking a few minutes each day to think on what we’re thankful for or journaling for five minutes nightly about what we appreciate. It can be sharing with friends or family members when something makes us happy, or even doing a happy dance and laughing out loud when something positive comes our way. It can be honoring our family members online and in phone calls when they make a significant accomplishment, and even if they don’t. It’s entirely possibly to “celebrate” by affirming to someone else the good attributes and gifts you see within in them.
These activities help us to develop an attitude of gratitude that will change our outlook of life and our ability to experience everything it offers. Practicing hopeful expectation softens our hearts to the world and those around us - making our heart good soil for dreams, ideas, relationships, and even faith to take root and grow.
It can be a powerful practical force as well. It improves our well-being and relationships. Numerous studies have found that incorporating practices of gratitude into our lives can improve psychological health, enhance empathy, improve self-esteem and outlook, helps people to sleep better, increases mental strength, improves aches and pains and helps us to live longer.
Cultivating gratitude, whether by throwing anniversary parties, popping champagne to honor a close friend, or simple meditating, is an act of being fully present. It’s what Fred Bryant, social psychologist at Loyola University Chicago, calls “savoring.”
“Bryant is the father of research on ‘savoring,’ or the concept that being mindfully engaged and aware of your feelings during positive events can increase happiness in the short and long run,” explains UC Berkeley’s Greater Good.
His research shows that savoring can provide benefits like “stronger relationships, improved mental and physical health, and finding more creative solutions to problems.”
Parties and taking the time to applaud others may feel frivolous - but it’s an investment that can change our lives.
Celebration creates belonging and connection When we celebrate with others, our human needs for belonging, acceptance, and inclusion are met. We create a shared experience with people we love, something that bonds us and brings meaning to our connection. According to Judith E. Glaser for Psychology Today, “Our brains are designed to be social - and the need for human contact is greater than the need for safety.”
Studies show it’s important for adults to sustain social interaction as they get older as a way of prolonging health and quality of life. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, specific benefits include a potentially reduced risk for cardiovascular problems, some cancers, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis, a potentially reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk for mental health issues like depression. Older adults who successfully maintain close friendships and find other ways to interact socially live longer than those who become isolated, reports the University, and these social interactions can even fight illness by boosting our immune systems!
The American Journal of Geriatric Psychology also reported that in one study participants stressed the importance of being surrounded by others, having a sense of connection, and feeling cared for as keys to successful aging. Further, they identified friends, even more than spouses and family members, as a driving force behind enjoyment of their lives and their sense of well-being.
According to the National Institute on Aging, “One study showed that older adults who reported taking part in social activities (such as playing games, belonging to social groups, or traveling) or meaningful, productive activities (such as having a paid or unpaid job, or gardening) lived longer than people who did not.”
Staying connected to meaningful relationships also becomes increasingly important as our lives continue to change-and change, as previously mentioned, is one of the few constants of our golden years. When circumstances out of our control change, we need to know more than ever that we are not being swept away with the current. We need to know we are grounded and secure. Our relationships may tend to naturally become fewer as we get older, but the emotional and spiritual support they provide becomes greater and greater.
Celebrating keeps us on track and motivated to keep growing. If we don’t look to see what progress we’ve made, it’s easy to feel like we’re not progressing. When we don’t feel like we’re moving forward or there’s no point, we become bored, burnt out, or negative. Celebrating helps us to feel excited about our present life, appreciative of our past life, and eager to grow into our future life.
No matter how old we get, whether we’re retired or not, we all have something to grow towards. If we’re not growing, we’re stagnant - and if we’re stagnant, we’re not really living. But moving forward is difficult without motivation - especially if you no longer have a work environment providing external influences like deadlines.
Even the act of talking about things worth celebrating causes our brain to release “feel good” chemicals like oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, explains Glaser in Psychology Today. “Their release into our system gives us a sense of well-being, creating a safety space that enables us to experiment, take risks, learn and handle the challenges of growing the business.” We experience increased motivation and more resilient to stress.
The release of these feel-good chemicals is like a reward, making us more excited to keep moving forward and live our best life, even when new challenges arise.
It makes life more meaningful - and more fun. Acknowledging the accomplishments and choices of our lives connects us to a greater sense of meaning and significance. This sounds more spiritual or emotional, but its positive effects are also physical.
One study done by Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, looked at older adults in the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging (ALSA). “Started in 1992, ALSA has followed over 2,000 older Australians for decades to examine how health, emotional well-being, and living conditions have changed over time and to identify factors involved in successful aging,” explains Psychology Today. The research showed that a stronger sense of purpose made for more successful aging. “Individuals scoring higher on sense of purpose reported lower functional disability, better self-rated health, and fewer symptoms of depression compared to individuals who scored lower on purpose.”
Cultivating a sense of meaningfulness in our lives brings a quality that’s harder to put into words. Everything becomes more enjoyable, more moving, more exciting when we believe there’s a reason for it all. It makes our lives more passionate, joyful, and adventurous. Choosing joy and celebrating is simply more fun. Our quality of life improves when we choose to have fun and enjoy what is around us- rather than looking to the past or the future with regret and worry.
We can live any life we choose. Why not live a life full of celebration? The health effects are real, but ultimately, a life worth living is one worth experiencing to the fullest.
It’s worth allowing our hearts to grow, our hope to expand, and giving ourselves permission to savor just how good life can be.